LOS ANGELES – California’s Governor Gavin Newsom signed on Wednesday an executive order imposing a moratorium on executions in that state, where nearly 740 inmates are on death row but capital punishment has not been employed since 2006.
“The intentional killing of another person is wrong. And as governor, I will not oversee the execution of any individual,” Newsom said in announcing his decision.
The Democratic former mayor of San Francisco said the death penalty discriminates against people with mental illness, people of color and those who cannot afford “expensive legal representation.”
“I do not believe that a civilized society can claim to be a leader in the world as long as its government continues to sanction the premeditated and discriminatory execution of its people,” he added.
The governor’s “announcement marks a watershed moment in the fight for racial equity and equal justice for all,” Hector Villagra, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Southern California, said in a statement sent to EFE.
“We do know that race plays a dangerous and inappropriate role in decisions about who is sentenced to death in California,” he added.
Villagra pointed to a 2005 study that appeared in the law review of California’s Santa Clara University and which showed racial discrimination in the sentencing of people convicted of homicide.
Specifically, it revealed that individuals convicted of murdering non-Latino whites during the 1990s in California were over four times more likely to be sentenced to death than those who killed Latinos and over three times more likely to receive a death sentence than those whose victims were African-Americans.
Both Newsom and Villagra referred Wednesday to the case of Vicente Benavides, who spent 25 years on death row but was freed last April after his rape and murder conviction was overturned.
Clarence Ray Allen, 76, who was executed on Jan. 17, 2006, was the last person to be put to death in California.
The executive order signed by Newsom, who took office in January, also closes the execution chamber at San Quentin State Prison, located in Northern California’s Marin County.
It follows two failed attempts at abolishing the death penalty in California through 2012 and 2016 ballot initiatives, although the pro-capital punishment vote won three years ago by a narrow margin.
California voters in 2016 voted in favor of another ballot measure – also by a slim margin – that shortened the appeals process for those sentenced to death.
A total of 737 people currently on death row in California are beneficiaries of Newsom’s executive order, which states that it does not alter any sentence or conviction.
Despite the moratorium, courts still have the option of handing down death sentences.
Since the United States’ Supreme Court reinstituted the death penalty in 1976, a total of 1,493 death-row inmates have been executed nationwide, while the state with the highest number of executions has been Texas (560).
Twenty of the 50 US states have abolished the death penalty.
Capital punishment is currently authorized by the other 30 states, the US federal government and the US military.